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Gang members offered education from LA man

January 29, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
A Southland man is making a difference, taking gang members off the streets and into the classroom to teach them trades and change their lives.These days it's hard enough for anyone to find a job. But for an ex-gang member it is next to impossible. One man is trying to change that trend. He's using his own business to train former criminals in a new trade, and in many cases he's saving their lives.

It's after 7 p.m. and instead of working the streets of Inglewood, Andrew Watson is in a classroom learning something that will take him out of the gang life forever.

"I've been shot six times. I did time in prison, and it's not worth it," said Watson. "This is the way to go."

And that way is the trade of heating and air conditioning. It's a class Inglewood resident Ed Roche started 10 years ago. Most of his students are former "Bloods," "Crips" or just plain criminals, all hoping for a better life.

"It's a rough area," said Roche. "When I started that class, my number-one rule was 'No rounds in the chamber.' Because they would come to school with guns."

Roche says he's not a saint. The Long Beach native was born behind bars. His mother was a heroin addict, his father an abusive alcoholic. It took joining the Marines and a 10-month stint in a Mexican prison to set him straight.

In 2000, he moved to Inglewood, started his own business and began teaching future workers. Jason Lewis, a former gang member, was one of his first students.

"A lot of people that entered the program and didn't finish -- a lot of my friends -- they're dead or in jail right now," said Lewis. "So I was happy that I finished and got the opportunity. Now I make good money, take care of my family. I'm a good piece to society. I pay taxes, try to give back to these guys because I was in their shoes like 10 years ago."

Roche recruits students by posting flyers. He pays for the books and tests out of his own pocket -- about $2,000 per student.

"Just think if we were able to help 300 guys in this neighborhood, how it would change the crime rate, all these guys making money," said Roche. "It's sad we can't help everybody."

And once these guys graduate they could make up to $80,000 a year.

Once he gets a job, Andrew Watson is planning to give back, just like his teacher.

"I'm always constantly telling youth and kids out there on the streets that if anything, you need to stop the gangs and drugs and all that, and do something positive. And I figure if I can do it, they can do it," said Watson.

Roche receives about 300 calls a day from people wanting to join his class. He can afford to teach 10 students at a time.